On our way home from Tzfat, we meandered through the Galil in no rush to get home. Galil roads contain dozens of landmark signs pointing to the grave sites of Tannaim (Rabbis from the Mishnaic time period) and Ammoraim (Rabbis from the Talmudic time period) and Biblical notables. Besides the historical and religious aspect (saying Tehillim at these sites can never be a "bad" thing), I though it would make interesting blog material. Little did I know where this post was going to lead me when I embarked on writing it...
Armed with my camera, we stopped at a dozen or so locations on our way home (my wife opted to say tehillim in the car, laughing at me for taking pictures at each site).
Each site was basically a cave, with a marker of some sort; either covering up the side of the cave (with more of the cave behind it), or a raised area -- a "tzurat hakever", "the form of a grave." Some were slightly spooky, with no lighting down below and some were well lit (electric wires snaked along cave ceilings), complete with benches, chairs and tables (and used candles/bottles of oil).
Sounds like the perfect opportunity to blog something interesting.
At one of the sites, that of Rabbi Yehuda bar Ila'i, (a Mishnaic-era scholar) there was a large building and courtyard, and proper steps going down into a dark cave.
It was so dark, I could barely see what was there except for 2 apparent inner caves. I said some tehillim, took a few pictures hoping the camera flash would illuminate what was there so I could go recollect a bit later what was at each site, and left the cave.
Getting into the car, I looked at my camera's pictures and was rather shocked. The stone tablet inside the cave I had just been in read "In this place soap was buried that was made from Jews, May G-d Avenge their deaths, murdered by the Germans, May their names be eradicated"
Soap. from. Jews.
Now that gave me the chills.
Everyone's heard the stories about Jews being made into soap by the Nazis during the Holocaust; the lampshades, "medical experiments", gas chambers, indescribable cruel torture, the atrocities.
I was glad I had said tehillim there, though in retrospect had I known before going down to the cave, I might have said it more intently.
Pondering this a bit, it seemed like a good thing the soap had been buried there instead of being in some museum.
Now I could simply end off this posting now, and many of you would think, "ok, that was an interesting blog post -- glad to see Jameel's posting quality Eretz Yisrael posts again." (I know I would).
Instead, I decided to do a bit more research...which is why this post is still "unfinished," and therefore only "part 1."
What piqued my curiosity is twofold:
1. While many of the grave sites around the Galil are attributed to the Kabbalistically derived identification from the Ari, was the grave site of R' Yehuda Bar Ila'i "identified" by the Ari, or does it have an older history. I learned that the Ari's identification also had halachik repercussions; can a Cohen visit these newly identified burial caves?
2. Many of the caves I had visited contained relatively new plaques on them (from the 1980's) from the "Society for preservation of Graves and Holy Sites in Eretz Yisrael." This didn't give me a high level of confidence that any of these sites had any sort of reputable history behind them (while many might argue that the Ari's Kabbalistic identification is also, "politely unreliable") Therefore, who placed the stone plaque about the soap made from Jews in the cave? When did this happen? Was that also reliable? And why of all places were they buried in THIS cave near Tzfat -- and not at Har Zion or at Yad Vashem?
And then...the more I delved, the more perplexed I became.
What I considered as an absolute fact -- that Jews were made into soap by the Nazis...the same sort of fact such as Nazi death camp prisoners had blue numbers tattooed onto their arms, which I had personally seen on relatives who survived -- was less than absolute. Yad Vashem admits there is no absolute hard evidence that soap from Jewish bodies was mass produced by the Nazis...and the Holocaust deniers are having a field day with this information.
All the research I could find on the web (from Jewish sites, not the vile Holocaust deniers) pointed to one very clear conclusion: there is no absolute evidence of Jews being made into soap -- at least not on a mass production level. [btw - these links are mandatory reading] The Nizkor site and the Jewish Virtual Library wrote a detailed article which has the difficult job of going head to head with the Holocaust deniers who claim that just as there's no proof of the soap production, the rest of the Holocaust is a bunch of stories and myths blown out of proportion. The reasons for thinking that soap production from Jewish bodies actually happened is more than understandable -- the Nazi's taunted Jews in Auschwitz that they would be made into soap; with thousands being gassed and cremated daily, I doubt anyone there challenged the veracity of the threat.
However, the admission that the soap production may have been so limited left me feeling...disturbed. Not the lack of hard physical evidence...but that it's portrayed as fact (or at least what I was taught). Makes you wonder if anything else was slightly hyperbolized? No, I won't think that. The explanation from the Nizkor site is honest and academic, even though it left me with a bad feeling.
So what was buried in that cave? Perhaps some of the soap allegedly thought to be the remains of Jews? When did it get there? Why there of all places...
Google is your friend. As are students at Yeshiva University...[thanks SJ!!] My YU library alumni access is not nearly as "premium" as access given to students and faculty who gladly looked up an article for me (the link was available from Google, but the full content is only available to YU students and faculty)
The information I was looking for here, appears in this footnote:
16. Hatsofeh, Dec. 29 and 30, 1949. On this ceremony, see Pinhas Peli's correspondence, "Reshimot Yerushalmiyot," Hatsofeh, Jan. 2, 1950. For an interesting parallel between the ritual on Mount Zion and the burial of "Jewish soap" in other parts of Israel, see Zeev Vilnai, Matsevot kodesh be-Erets Yisrael Jerusalem, 1952), 427, where he mentions Safed's elders, who in 1949 buried pieces of "Jewish soap" in the burial cave of Rabbi Yehuda Bar-Ilai outside the city. For a similar description and for details of another burial ceremony that took place near Rabbi Tarfon's tomb, see Yosef Hagelili, Sefer meron (Jerusalem, 1988), 60
So what did Professor Zeev Vilnai write? [thanks AGMK]
In 1949, many Jews -- residents from Tzfat came to the cave of Rabbi Yehuda ben Ila'i, and buried soap from the fat of Jews that were made by the German Nazis; it was brought by one of the immigrants to Israel.
The grave of Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ila'i was publicized within Jewish Life during the Middle Ages. Many pilgrams visited [his grave] and mentioned it. R' Menachem HaHevroni in 1218 was the first to mention it [in his book] "By The Vineyards."
So...wrapping up part 1 of this post, I've discovered that there's not much physical evidence that Jews were made into soap, though there was a public burial ceremony at R' Yehuda Bar Ila'i's cave in 1949.
And...the burial cave of R' Yehuda Bar Ila'i predates the Ari, and is already mentioned in the Middle Ages.
I don't know about you, but if just this one 5 minute excursion turned into an interesting research post, I wonder what part 2 (and the other sites I visited) will bring...
PS: Lurker adds the following...
And why of all places were they buried in THIS cave near Tzfat -- and not at Har Zion or at Yad Vashem?
A thought occurred to me: According to a bereita in TB Ketubot 17a, R. Yehuda b. Ila'i was well-known for his practice of leaving his Torah learning whenever the opportunity would arise to fulfill the mitzvot of hotza'at ha-meit and hakhnasat kalah. (preparing the dead for burial, helping a bride [also financially] prepare for her wedding). The bereita adds that it's appropriate to do this in a case where there are not enough people already attending the funeral or wedding in question:
אמרו עליו על רבי יהודה ברבי אלעאי, שהיה מבטל תלמוד תורה להוצאת המת ולהכנסת כלה; במה דברים אמורים - כשאין עמו כל צרכו, אבל יש עמו כל צרכו - אין מבטלין.
These Holocaust victims, whose corpses had been mutilated beyond recognition (assuming the soap had indeed been made from them), certainly had no relatives or loved ones attending their burial. In light of this, perhaps the residents of Tzfat deemed it appropriate to give R. Yehuda b. Ila'i the honor, even in death, of sharing in the burial of these Jews.
Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד